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Getting Bill Owens’ goat

Election Day a mixed bag for Colorado’s governor

By Leigh E. Rich

The landscape in Colorado looks far different than at the national level, where President Bush will serve another four years and have a sizeable Republican majority in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate during the 109th Congress.

Not so for Colorado’s Gov. Bill Owens, who will face Democratic leadership at the Statehouse during the 65th General Assembly and his final two years in office.

The switch from red to blue, at least at the state level, has given the governor some indigestion, particularly since his team ate four “red shirts right off the line,” as the “Bill Grogan” song goes, in this election—including its previous 18-17 majority in the Senate, a 37-28 majority in the House, GOP Rep. Scott McInnis’ 3rd CD seat, and Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s U.S. Senate seat.

“Am I happy my friends in the Democratic Party are in the majority? No. Can I work with them? Yes,” Owens said in a post-election press conference on Nov. 3. “And (I) will plan to do so.”

Colorado’s governor, who is close to the Bush administration, told reporters he is not a freshman when it comes to working across the aisle.

“I spent 12 years doing this on the other side of the aisle. I was in the Legislature for 12 years with a (Republican) majority… and dealt with Governor Romer and … Governor Lamm,” with whom, Owens said, he worked to pass “some significant legislation.”

“Roy Romer signed charter schools, Roy Romer signed the E-470 legislation. Dick Lamm signed what’s called ‘joint several tort reform.’ So, in fact, you can do good things across party lines,” he said.

Owens also pointed to his Transportation Revenue Anticipation Notes (TRANs) program in which, according to his Web site, “he accelerated $1.7 billion in transportation projects statewide … without an increase in taxes.”

“My TRANS proposal would not have passed without significant Democratic support in 1999.”

The governor additionally discussed a piece of bipartisan legislation concerning transportation funding, SB 179, he signed in 2002 that gave the Regional Transportation District (RTD) the authority to place measures on state ballots after voter petitions are certified.

And that is why, Owens insinuated last week, the passing of Referendum 4A—otherwise known as FasTracks—wasn’t a personal blow to his agenda, even though he spoke out against it.

“We gave that ability to RTD to have the power of an initiative through a bill that I signed and worked with (then-Senate President) Stan Matsunaka on. They could not have even gone to the ballot, except for my signature and my support with Stan Matsunaka.”

With such a history, Owens said, the Statehouse switchover will not greatly affect his agenda, though he didn’t talk specifics about what will be on his plate come January 2005. He did admit, however, that he will “have to work it differently” with the Dems in control.

“There will be some bills that get vetoed, that pass the Legislature on a party-line basis. I’ll have some proposals that won’t pass because they’ll be defeated on a party-line basis. That’s part of the process and it’s very normal.”

But “they also have a significant responsibility,” he added. “They’re now in control of both houses. … (But) they’ll be working with me as well. So there’s going to be some give and take, but it’s not going to be only a responsibility of Governor Owens to pass these things. They’re going to have to pass some things … that meet my approval.”

But despite getting “everything I could have hoped for and more” at the national level—with Bush in a second term and GOP gains in the U.S. House and Senate—Owens agreed with one reporter’s characterization that Election Day was a mixed bag for Colorado’s top official.

Though he didn’t think the FasTracks proposal had “the right mix of road and transit”—and went so far as to tell Colorado what he thought via radio and television shows—“Colorado in its wisdom chose otherwise” Owens said. “And so my job is to try to work with RTD and C-DOT to try to make it happen.”

As for the little known Referendum 3A that would have made changes to the state personnel system, its strong defeat “was a surprise,” Owens said.

Explaining that though he was for it, “we didn’t have the time and money” to promote it “because of (Amendment) 36 and some other challenges. … What I want to do is go look at the ballot language to see what it actually said, because the only thing people could have known about that is really what they saw in the ballot language.”

Owens also said he regretted the Pete Coors and Greg Walcher defeats by the Salazar brothers—Ken beating Coors for a U.S. Senate seat and John edging out Walcher for the 3rd CD House seat.

But, according to Owens, Walcher’s defeat is more palatable knowing that 7th CD and 4th CD incumbents Bob Beauprez and Marilyn Musgrave have secured those districts.

And having Bush as president for the next four years “makes everything else much more manageable.”

As for Coors, whom the governor brought into the race in April after having first backed Bob Schaffer, Owens explains the result of that race in terms of Salazar being “a very good candidate” and the amount of money that was spent, mostly by outside 527s.

“There were probably more negative ads against Pete than there were negative ads against Ken. And that’s not a reflection of Ken’s campaign. It’s a reflection of 527s. But I bet if you did an analysis, there was significantly more negative ads paid for by outside groups against Pete than Ken.”

One feather the governor can stick proudly in his hat is the defeat of Amendment 36, which would have spilt Colorado’s electoral votes among presidential candidates according to the popular vote.

Calling Amendment 36 “the biggest challenge to Colorado” and “a looming disaster for Colorado,” Owens emphasized that “we won that big. And, in this case, I went out and raised the money personally. I got the campaign team together. I went and did the editorial boards and … the talking heads. And with a lot of help as it built, we defeated it.”

As for what happens next for a governor whom the media and others have labeled both a lame duck and a possible Bush cabinet member, Owens says he doesn’t see this “as an end. I see this as what I ran for. … I don’t think it’ll be as contentious as we expect on day one (with the Democratic Statehouse). I have seen legislatures work with governors many, many times.”

In the interim, he must find a replacement for Attorney General Ken Salazar, and while some names “come to mind,” he doesn’t have a short list and expects to engage in “a lot of discussion … before I start to narrow the possible field.”

Anyone he nominates also must be confirmed by the Senate. Whether the Democratic majority will affect his choice of possible candidates, Owens says he’s “not assuming anything and I’m not taking anything off the table, other than I’ll try to put the best person in that position for the next two years.”

And neither the “lame duck” label nor the Bush-appointee rumors will change his plans come January, Owens reassures.

“I’m really not worried about the label. … (And) I fully expect to spend the next two years here as governor. … What I have to do is do a good job with what I’ve been asked to do.

“And none of this works if I don’t do a good job.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, November 19). Election Day a mixed bag: Getting Bill Owens’ goat. The Colorado Statesman, pp. 1, 5.

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